June 20 – Tongue Tied

One of the best things about science is how it corrects mistakes. And one of the worst things about popular culture is how it perpetuates them. Today, Daniel, Peter, and Mary discover the truth behind a popular science myth when they get tongue tied!



It was a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon and life was just about perfect. Daniel had come to visit Mary and Peter that morning and they’d spent several hours experimenting with kites, trying to discover what sort of tail made a kite fly best. What they had discovered was that the person flying the kite was even more important than the tail. Peter’s kites always flew into trees or crashed into the ground. Mary could keep her kites flying but had a very hard time launching them. But Daniel was a natural kite-flyer and could make even the most unlikely of kites soar high above.

To make the day even better, when they’d gotten back to Mary’s back yard, they found that her father had set up a picnic for them, complete with hot dogs, potato salad, three kinds of pickles, and fresh watermelon. The three friends enthusiastically munched through the piles of food, only slowing down once they reached the slices of watermelon.

“Pass the salt, please,” Mary asked.

“I still don’t get it,” Daniel said as he salted his slice of watermelon and then passed her the condiment. “How can adding salt to watermelon make it taste so good?”

“Dunno,” Peter said. “It just does.”

“Is that any kind of attitude for a scientist to display?” Mary’s father chided gently. “A real scientist would try to figure it out.”

“OK, how do we do that?” Peter replied.

“In science, you always start with what you know. What do we know about taste?”

“Well, last year Mrs. Krabapple had us map our tongues with four tastes,” Mary said. “So we know that there are four different tastes and that they are in different parts of the tongue.”

“As a wise man once said, it isn’t what we know that causes us problem; it is what we think we know that really ain’t so,” her father said. “Your teacher was wrong on two counts. First, a taste isn’t found in just one part of your tongue. And second, there are more than four tastes.”

“Huh?” the three young scientists chorused.

“This is sort of like the myth of Brontosaurus which was really an Apatosaurus and the myth that we only use 10% of our brains when we actually use the whole thing. What happened is that a reporter misheard something and told everyone about it. What happened is that a psychologist by the name of Boring had translated a German paper that showed different parts of the tongue were more sensitive to different tastes. For some reason, this got reported by the popular press as though those tastes could only be sensed in those parts of the tongue. But you can easily prove that this isn’t true,” Mary’s father said.

“How?” Daniel asked.

“Spoken like a true scientist!” Mary’s father beamed. “First, stick out your tongue and dry it off with a napkin. That will make it certain that the taste doesn’t get spread by the saliva in your mouth. Now take a piece of water melon and touch it to the different parts of your tongue – on the front, on each side, in the middle, and in the back. See how you can taste it all over your tongue?”

The three experimenters followed his directions and quickly discovered that he was right. As they finished their experiment, he continued.

“Now watermelon has a lot of sugar in it, so you were mainly tasting ‘sweet’. We can repeat the experiment with the other tastes if you like, but what it will prove is that you have taste buds for every taste on every part of your tongue. There are actually taste buds on your cheeks and in your throat as well.”

“Wow!” Peter said. “Mrs. Krabapple never said anything about that!”

“She may not have known,” Mary’s father replied. “Sadly, many teachers don’t get the support they need in order to teach science properly.”

“But what about the number of tastes?” Mary demanded. “You said that there aren’t four tastes.”

“That’s right,” her father replied. “Depending on how you want to count them, there may be as few as five or as many as thirteen different distinct tastes. The five tastes that just about everyone agrees on are sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.”

“Ohh-what-si?” Daniel asked.

“Umami,” Mary’s father repeated. “It is sometimes called ‘savoriness’ or ‘meatiness’ because it is sort of like the taste of a good steak. Those hot dogs you three scarfed down had a lot of umami.”

“That’s pretty neat, but what do the different tastes have to do with why we like watermelon better with salt on it?” Peter asked.

“Ah, I think I’ll let you figure that out for yourselves. Stay here for a second!”

With that, Mary’s father went back into their kitchen. Mystified, the three young scientists looked at each other. From the kitchen, they heard a variety of cabinets being opened and closed and the clink of plates. After a few minutes, Mary’s father came back out carrying five different plates. As he put the plates on the table in front of them, he explained what the experiment would be.

“In each plate, we’ve got an example of a different taste. The first one has salt for saltiness. The second plate has baking cocoa for bitterness. The third plate has vinegar for sourness. the fourth plate has low-sodium soy sauce for meatiness. And the last plate has sugar for sweetness. And here are a bunch of water crackers; they don’t really have much in the way of flavor,” he paused as Peter grabbed a cracker and tasted it.

“Ugh!” Peter exclaimed. “It tastes like cardboard.”

“Right!” Mary’s father said. “Now here’s the experiment. First, you’ll dip a cracker into each of the different tastes and eat it. That will help you get familiar with the tastes. Then you’ll try dipping the cracker into two different tastes and then eat it. What do you think will happen?”

“Well, the two different tastes will just be two different tastes in our mouths,” Peter said. “Nothing will change.”

“I don’t know,” Daniel said. “Remember what happened when we added salt to the watermelon?”

“That’s right!” Mary exclaimed. “I’ll bet that the tastes change each other somehow.”

“Well, there’s only one way to be sure,” Mary’s father said. “Start tasting!”

What do you think will happen? Try the experiment yourself!






The three young scientists quickly grabbed crackers and dipped them into each of the plates. From their grimaces, it was clear that they didn’t much care for the tastes by themselves. But something changed when they started dipping the crackers into to tastes before eating them.

“Hey!” Peter excitedly said. “Did you guys try this? Sweet plus bitter – it tastes almost like a candy bar!”

“Cool!” Daniel replied. “I like sour and salty – it tastes like a pickle!”

“And salty plus umami is wonderful!” Mary added. “This is so delicious!”

“Can you figure out why it is so good,” Mary’s father asked. “You’ve definitely got enough information to form a hypothesis now.”

“Well, one taste by itself isn’t very good,” Peter said. “And it only hits one set of taste buds.”

“But two different tastes together are good, ” Mary said.

“And they hit two different sets of taste buds,” Daniel added. “So maybe the more different taste buds that get excited, the better the food tastes?”

“That’s right!” Mary’s father said. “That’s why the best recipes always have several different tastes in them. Cookies always have sweet and salty. Soda usually has sweet and sour. Soup has umami and salty. And so forth. Companies spend billions of dollars trying to find the perfect combination of different flavors. For example, what do you think would happen if you used umami with your watermelon instead of salty? Or if you used bitter?”

“I don’t know,” Peter started.

“But we sure want to find out!” Daniel and Mary chorused together. Smiling, the three scientists grabbed watermelon slices and began their most edible experiment of the day.

June 17 – Not So Grumpy Cat

Today’s factismal: Cat videos are the most popular thing on YouTube.

If you love animals, or just enjoy goofing off, odds are that you’ve spent some time watching silly pet videos on YouTube. They range from the uber-popular “Grumpy Cat” to short one-offs produced by kids playing with their parent’s camera. But one thing that all of those videos have in common is that they are popular. How popular are they? Just look at the numbers. Last year, YouTube had a total of 2 million cat videos and the average cat video was seen some 13,000 times for a total of 26 billion views; that makes them the most-viewed thing on YouTube.

And it is no wonder. Researchers have long known that pets can improve a person’s mood and ability to think (what researchers call “affect” and “cognitive ability”); this has become so common that it even has its own name – “pet therapy”. Pets such as cats and dogs have been used to aid elders, patients in hospitals, and even with those on the autism spectrum. And it isn’t just cats that provide therapy; dogs, birds, and even horses have been used to help people in need. Though we’re not sure how pet therapy works, we do know what it does; it improves our emotional health. A recent study showed that people tended to have lower levels of anxiety, sadness, and annoyance after watching a pet video. So watch away!

But we don’t just feel better from watching pets; they can feel better (or worse) from watching us . And that’s where the citizen science comes in. The Center for Canine Behavior Studies is trying to determine what makes dogs act out. Why are some dogs always cheerful and friendly while other dogs suffer from behavioral problems such as whining, scratching, destructiveness, and failure to housebreak? How does the emotional state of the owner affect that of the dog? And how can we better match the dog to the owner to prevent abandonment? To help them answer those questions (and more!) all you have to do is register and answer a questionnaire on the site:

June 16 – My Queen!

Today’s factismal: Female cuckoo bumblebees orchestrate coup d’etats in the hives of other bumble bees and then enslave the workers to feed their meglomaniacal horde.

Things get weird in the insect world. Consider the humble bumblebee (or the bumble humblebee if you live in Britain). Though they all get lumped together by the casual observer (i.e., “that small insect with a big stinger that makes honey”), there are actually significant differences between the 250 known species of bumblebee worldwide, about 50 of which live in the USA. Though most bumblebees are about an inch long, the resemblances stops there. They have a bewildering variety of color schemes (usually in alternating strips of black and something bold) and flower preferences (from cactus to roses to pines) and nesting sites (from old bird’s nests to mouse holes to wooden eaves) and temperature range (from near-arctic to warmly tropical).

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets) (My camera)

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets)
(My camera)

But perhaps the weirdest thing that bumblebees do is prey on other bumblebees. There is an entire group of bumblebees known as the cuckoo bumblebee. The 29 different species in this group don’t hunt for nectar to make into honey; instead, they look for colonies of other bumblebees to take over in a coup d’etat. What happens is a recently-fertilized female cuckoo bumblebee will seek out a flower with the characteristic pheromone left on it after it has been the meal for a bumblebee. She will then feed at that flower, covering herself with the odor of the plant and the pheromone. Next, she finds the bumblebee nest which is always nearby due to their limited flight range. Using the scent of the flower as a disguise, she sneaks into the nest and sidles up to the queen. With a sudden leap, the cuckoo bumblebee stabs the queen to death after which she emits a pheromone that calms the remaining bumblebees and turns them into her loyal slaves. The usurping cuckoo bumblebee then spends the rest of the season pumping out baby cuckoo bumblebees, which are tended to by the enslaved colony; the cruel kingdom only ends when winter comes, killing all of the bees (sounds like a Game of Thrones episode, doesn’t it?).

Two bumblebees doing their job (My camera)

Two bumblebees doing their job
(My camera)

Of course, that’s not the only weird thing about bumblebees. Another one is that we still don’t know the range of the various species of bumblebee, nor are we sure if their numbers are increasing or not. If you’d like to help answer those questions, then why not join the folks at Project Bumble Bee?

June 15 – Your Prion Eyes

Today’s factismal: Genes to protect against prions have been seen in most human populations.

In Papua New Guinea, there is a tribe known as the Fore. They are noted for having strong family groups and for an unusual practice that strengthens the family bond; whenever a family member would die, he would be carved up and eaten at the funeral as a way pf preserving the family bond. Unfortunately for the Fore, more than family bonds gets preserved that way. A misshaped protein known as a prion also gets passed along. This protein tricks the victim’s cells into producing more of the prions; for reasons that still aren’t clear, the prions get concentrated in the brain where they cause spongiform encephalopathy (medicine-speak for “gaping holes eat into the brain”). As a result, the victim would slowly lose control of his limbs and speech center, causing him to shiver uncontrollably and to burst out into inappropriate laughter. It was this last symptom that gave the disease its names Kuru (“the shaking disease”) and “the laughing disease”.

A typical prion (Image courtesy NIH)

A typical prion
(Image courtesy NIH)

But what is fascinating about kuru is the way that the Fore responded to it. At its height, kuru killed about 2% of the tribe each year. But some people never got the disease, thanks to a random mutation that had probably been around for centuries before. Known as V127, this gene prevents the prion from being formed. Researchers have found that tribesmen with one copy of the gene never got kuru and those with two copies of the gene were immune against all known forms of human prion disease as well. Interestingly, similar genes have been identified in groups around the world, implying that cannibalism was found in just about every group at one time or another.

Prions in E. coli (Image courtesy NIH)

Prions in E. coli
(Image courtesy NIH)

Another thing that is found in just about every group of humans (except straight party ticket voters) is curiosity. And there are a lot of scientists who are curious about how proteins fold and what happens when the way that they fold changes. Do we get a new disease? A new eye color? A new way of using carbon dioxide? We don’t know yet, but you can help us learn! By playing the game Fold It, you can discover how proteins fold and help scientists discover more about proteins. To learn more, head to:

June 14 – Going Wild

This feral cat in Greece lives off of the kindness of fishermen (My camera)

This feral cat in Greece lives off of the kindness of fishermen
(My camera)

There are about 200 million cats in the USA alone. Surprisingly, only half of those are pets; the remainder are feral cats. both dogs and cats can adapt easily to being feral. They are capable hunters and have plenty of places where they can shelter. And part of the reason for this is because both dogs and cats reproduce like rabbits; a single mother dog and her brood can add 67,000 puppies to the world in six years. Cat lovers, your best friend is even worse; a single mother cat can easily give birth to over 100 kittens in her lifetime and can have a family of more than 420,000! Currently, many groups are attempting to reduce this problem by instituting “Trap-Neuter-Return” programs that catch feral dogs and cats, neuter them, and them release them back into the wild. (Why not put them up for adoption? Sadly, most feral animals cannot be tamed after they reach adulthood – sort of like teenagers.)

June 13 – Round And Round

One of the best things about science is how an observation in one area can apply to something in a completely different area. Our friends Peter and Mary will discover that and much more in today’s episode of the Secret Science Society!

If you have a friend, then you know that the only thing more fun than having your friend come to your birthday party is getting to go to his. And the only thing more fun than that is getting to play with the goodies that you got at the party. And both Peter and Mary had been lucky at their friend Daniel’s party. Mary had won a toy car when they played charades and Peter was coming home with a helium balloon he won during the trivia contest. As they watched for their ride home, they played with their new prizes.

“Hey! There’s my mom!” Peter said.

“Thanks again for a great party, Daniel!” Mary said. Her father had brought the two of them to the party and she was going to ride back home with Peter; living next door had some advantages.

“Glad you could come,” Daniel said. As the new kid at school, he didn’t have many friends yet, but sharing experiments with Peter and Mary had already turned them into a close-knit group. “And thank you for the lab coat! I can’t wait to try it out! And the air cannon is great – I couldn’t believe it when it blew out my candles!”

“Glad you like it,” Peter and Mary chorused as they headed out the door and clambered into the car.

“Are you both buckled in?” Peter’s mother asked.

“Yes!” the two said, and the car pulled out. Mary put her toy car on the seat between her and Peter, and Peter let his balloon float in the air above his knees. As the car stopped at a stop sign, Mary suddenly grabbed for the toy car.

“Hey!” Mary exclaimed. “The car’s trying to escape!”

“Well, that beats being hit in the face by a balloon!” Peter replied. As the car sped away from the stop sign, Mary’s toy car rolled back and Peter’s balloon swung toward the front of the car.

“That’s weird,” he said. “My balloon goes the opposite direction of your car. I wonder why?”

“If you’ll wait until we get home,” Peter’s mother said, “I can show you. Even better, we can do an experiment to find out the answer.”

Since experiments were one of Mary and Peter’s favorite things to do, they cheerfully agreed. Almost as soon as the car stopped in Peter’s driveway, the two young scientists hopped out and looked expectantly at Peter’s mother.

“OK,” she laughed. “Let’s go do some science!”

Taking them into the kitchen, she gave each of them a raw egg.

“What does this have to do with balloons and toy cars?” Mary asked.

“You’ll see,” Peter’s mother replied. “What I want you to do is spin the egg as quickly as you can. Once it is spinning, put your hand on the egg for a second to stop the spinning and then take your hand off. What will happen?”

“The egg will just sit there,” Mary said.

“I don’t know,” Peter said. “It might act like the car somehow.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Peter’s mother said. “On the count of three, spin!”

What do you think will happen? Do the experiment!






“One, two three!”

Peter and Mary quickly spun their eggs. As soon as the eggs started to spin around, they put a hand on them and stopped the egg. Then they took their hands away and watched in amazement as the eggs started to spin again!

“Hey! What gives?” Mary asked.

“That egg is a lot like the inside of the car,” Peter’s mother replied. “Just as the car is a hard shell of steel filled with air, an egg is a hard shell of calcium carbonate filled with liquid. And both air and egg white and every other physical thing in the universe have something in common – they all have mass.”

“But that just makes things weigh a lot and keeps stuff on planets,” Peter objected. “It can’t make something spin after you stop it!”

“Actually it can,” his mother said. “You’re right that mass is what gives things weight. But mass also has another feature; it creates inertia – the tendency for something to keep moving in the direction it is going. When you spun the egg, you started the liquid inside spinning. And though you stopped the outside of the egg, you weren’t able to stop the liquid inside thanks to its inertia. So when you took your hand off of the egg, the liquid made it start spinning again.”

“But what if I used a hard boiled egg?” Mary asked.

“Then everything would be stuck together and the egg wouldn’t start spinning again; that’s one way to tell if you have a hard-boiled egg or a raw one,” Peter’s mother replied. “But the same thing happens in a car that happens in that egg. When the car started moving, inertia kept the stuff inside of it from going with it right away.”

“Is that why you get pushed back in the seat when my dad drives?” Mary asked.

“Yes; it takes a little time for the car’s cushions to give your body the same speed as the rest of the car and that’s what pushed you back. And that’s why your toy car rolled back when the car started moving forward – it didn’t have the same speed as the car and tried to stay in place. And when the car stopped, your toy car rolled forward; if you hadn’t caught it, then it would have had an accident.”

“So that’s why we wear seat belts!” Peter said. “They help hold you in place and keep you from moving forward when the car gets in an accident and stops suddenly.”

“Right,” his mother said. “So can you figure out why the balloon went the opposite way to the toy car?”

“The balloon must have been pushed by something, or its inertia would have kept it right above my knees,” Peter said.

“The air!” Mary exclaimed. “Your balloon is lighter than air! When the car starts up, the air gets pushed back by its inertia. Because the balloon is lighter than air, it gets pushed forward when the air moves back!”

“That’s exactly right! Well done!” Peter’s mother looked at the clock. “But it is getting late and Peter has enough inertia in the morning already – he doesn’t need any more!”

“OK! Thanks for the ride back home,” Mary said . “And thanks for the experiment!”

Smiling, she headed out the door and over to her house as her brain filled with ideas for using inertia.



June 12 – Wham Bam

Today’s factismal: The Earth gets hit by about 42,000 meteorites each year.

Ask any third grader what killed the dinosaurs and odds are she’ll tell you that an asteroid did it. (That’s not quite correct but it is close enough for now.) And if the third grader is especially clever, she may even know the name of the asteroid: Chicxulub (“Chick-sue-loob” or “the well of the great horns”). Like all major impact structures, the name comes from the closest town and not from the actual asteroid; those are usually given names like 2060 Chiron or 1992 QB1 or 1999 FN53. But what your third grader may not know is that Chicxulub was hardly the only asteroid to every hit the Earth.

Every day, nearly 170 meteorites hit the Earth; that adds up to 42,000 meteorites each year! (For the purposes of this article, we’ll treat asteroids and meteorites and comets as being roughly equivalent simply because they are, planetologically speaking.) Most of these are small pieces of rock and ice about the size of a grain of rice that burn up in the outer atmosphere leaving nothing behind but a little dust and a pretty lightshow. But about 2,800 of those meteorites each year are large enough to actually make it deeper into the atmosphere.

A meteorite as seen from above the atmosphere  (Image courtesy NASA/Ron Garan)

A meteorite as seen from above the atmosphere
(Image courtesy NASA/Ron Garan)

Every year, about 500 meteorites survive their fiery plunge through the atmosphere and make it to the ground. Most of those are small and do little damage, but every once in a while we get something a little larger that causes trouble. In 2013, a meteor that was 60 ft across and weighed more than the Eiffel tower fell above Chelyabinsk, Russia. When it exploded in the sky, it created a shockwave that shattered glass for miles around, injuring more than 1,500 people who had gone to the window to see what the pretty bright light was. When it was all over and done, the Chelyabinsk meteor left behind $33 million in damages, more than 1,500 pounds of fragments, and a 20 ft wide hole known as an “astrobleme” (star wound) in the trade or a “meteor crater” to news reporters.

And that isn’t the worst that could happen. Based on what we know right now, scientists expect to see an impact creating a Chelyabinsk style crater roughly every 250 years, an Odessa style 500 ft crater every 540 years, a Wolfe Creeksized half-mile across crater every 13,000 years, a (Barringer) Meteor Crater mile-wide crater every 21,000 years, a Pingualuit two mile across impact every 50,000 years, and a Chicxulub 110 mile across crater every 100,000,000 years. As you might guess from that big gap at the end, there is still a lot that we don’t know for sure about impact craters.

The Pingualuit impact crater (Image courtesy NASA)

The Pingualuit impact crater (Image courtesy NASA)

But we can learn. And surprisingly on of the best places to learn about impact craters is from the things that make them – asteroids! That’s because unlike the Earth, which has wind and water and plate tectonics to erase old impact craters, the asteroids just have impacts to erase other impacts. So by examining impact craters on asteroids, we can learn more about how they happen on Earth which can help us keep another Chicxulub from knocking on our planet one day. If you’d like to learn more about imact craters on asteroids, why not zoom over to Vesta Mappers at Cosmo Quest? They’ll show you how to identify impact craters on the latest images of Vesta and then let you loose on the newest data we’ve got!